I realise that recently...

Aleksander Borovsky Article from a catalogue for the Vladimir Zagorov exhibition in
the State Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, year 1997

I realise that recently I have begun once more looking closely at the studios of those artists of whom I am to write. A habit which apparently has no place in postmodernist discourse: artists of the 1990s treat their place of work unemotionally, and the Outsiders' non-geographical squats are typologically and facelessly slovenly both on Pushkinskaya in Petersburg and in Paris, while the production spaces of those in the mainstream are functional and impersonally sterile wherever they flourish, be it Soho or Cologne. In a word, studios have ceased to be a place where the artist, to use Sartre's expression "senses his being"... But twenty years ago... In the Neo-classical furniture and World of Art works on the walls of studios belonging to Merited Soviet Academicians of painting, one unerringly read their spiritual aristocracy, hidden deep beneath a layer of titles and merits... The average member of the Leningrad or Moscow Unions of Artists spontaneously stuck his walls over with a combination of slogans, labels off wine bottles and street signs forbidding this or that, and on this alogical ephemera the nutritious bouillion of proto-Sotsart was brewed. Most perspicacious of all, as always, was Moscow lyric conceptualism, which actualised the theme of the studio as a means of self-identification – at least in the installations of Kabakov and the "cupboards" of Makarevich – at just the right time. In a word, everyone expressed themselves in their studios, sometimes more brilliantly even than in their own artistic products.

All this is long forgotten, apart perhaps from the above-mentioned museumised pieces of the conceptualists.

Thus all the more poignant is the feeling which arises today in some, in truth very few, studios. I shall try to describe it, understanding all the unpopularity and even danger in sentimental-elegiac intonations today. What was it that so grabbed me in the studio of Vladimir Zagorov? Nostalgia? There were traces of that: the bird-house on Vasilyevsky Island, out of the windows the patched and re-patched roofs, below the criss-crossing of the island's Lines. And that forgotten sense of neat impoverishment – no audio or video excesses, everything as it was in my youth. And yet not a shadow of neglect: this is a working and residential studio, with its smell of oil, turps and tea. Somehow old-fashioned and concentrated, from some pre-exhibition-opening, pre-networking era or atmosphere. "What's this, a mirror of the soul," some dauntless colleague will say, ironically, and I shall answer "And why not?" In an era of character, i.e. the articulation of role function, we have ceased to believe in personality. The personal, that which is not part of the "game". That realised not outside, but within. Including within one's own personal space. That place where the artist "senses his being".

It is this personal note, alien to extrovert gestures, that I felt in Zagorov's studio. And thus, I am not ashamed of my excursions into "the culture of the studio". They are not without some use. In subject and device, as old Chistyakov used to say. And Zagorov is undoubtedly a particular subject.

If only because he is one of the most solitary artists of his generation, not getting involved in a single discourse. Not dissolving in any collective activities. Not readily filed under any classification –the great delight of postmodernist catalogising art criticism... Not that he is a radical – overthrower of standards, a pioneer explorer or such like. Zagorov's artistic practice fits well within clearest typological parameters. Here we are talking not of some kind of artistic thought processes, but a particular kind of artist's development. Very individual, conditioned by personality. Built along lines determined by internal requirements and not mainstream logics (in this is his deep-rooted difference from those masters orientated on current artistic actuality, whatever it is). The logics of internal requirements can and do take the artist onto territory already conquered in the course of the evolution of art of our time. But he orders them in his own way. In other words, for Zagorov the most important thing is the organic nature of his own path. Thus he is solitary. This is his interest.

Vladimir Zagorov graduated from the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture at the end of the 1970s, having worked in the studio of Academician A. Mylnikov. For those in the arts in the 1970s and 1980s this name has a special ring to it! Undoubtedly cultured and relatively independent, Mylnikov, for all the trappings and decorations of the regime, never sunk to the level of outright servility, tending rather towards the eternal Russian illusion of state art. On this rather shaky ground a building, majestic in its own way, was erected. The passwords for entry into it were the concepts of "culture" and "high". Not just some empty sounding words, but passes into the Citadel of academic realism! Today we would call it academic mannerism, but this changes nothing: even with those pitiless adjustments and amendments brought by time, the outlines of the building Mylnikov erected continue to inspire respect. Moreover it is clear that Russia will not have another school of this quality. The Academician's students (Mylnikovtsy – the word has become almost a common noun) were probably the best prepared in professional terms (comparing them not with other academic studios, apart, perhaps, from that of E. Moiseenko – for in terms of official education Mylnikov's studio had no competitors –but rather with the numerous private academies in underground culture at the time). But, as always happens, the very concept of professional training as understood by Mylnikov had, alongside its undoubtedly positive elements, a flip side. Above all, it contained a certain element of cloning – almost all the master's students were strongly similar in typological terms, which was unavoidable bearing in mind the teacher's authoritarian instilling of his own doctrine of professional culture, with its prioritisation of the maestro and professional craft aspects at the cost of the culture of conceptual thought. The result was the fetishisation of the concepts of culturedness and finish, and a certain externalisation of them. The most farsighted Mylnikovtsy struggled with this externalisation, while the majority, within the bounds of the typology set forward, varied the nuances, as befits representatives of a School in the classical sense of the word. Zagorov was from his youth not suited to a school, and despite the speciality of Mylnikov's studio he had no ambitions to be a state monumental artist. He would seem to have given Mylnikov's typology its dues, but very soon the internal requirements for his own development forced him to seek his own way. To give weight and mass to his range. To cast doubt on that which would seem to have been carved in stone: the carefully balanced arrangement of areas of colour, a certain dandiness in laying the paint, a refined sense of colour transition – the teacher's beloved gesture of hommage to Spanish tradition. Thus the general tendency was set out, "away from the school".

His painting in the mid-1980s shows elements of grotesque. Generally speaking, the grotesque as an expressive, extrovert gesture is alien to Zagorov's internal world, but he saw no other way of leaving the well-trodden path (I cannot say if this was the only way, but it was effective, for in any case the majority of the Mylnikovtsy, those who did not experience the trial of brutalisation, slowly but surely rolled downhill towards salon art). In my memories of painting of that period are the brutal-energetic "dancefloors" and various kinds of "games" with their clear self-provoking aim to destroy from within oneself, as it were, the still surface of cultural painting. The "game of exacerbation" remains as a result, existing in several hypostases. The least successful, to my mind, are the grotesques which use surrealistic visual mythology, the human bird and such like. I am sure these were demanded by the artist's internal spiritual life – every one of us has a right to his own "dream of sense" and his own "monsters", but if we speak of the results, however, we are forced to recognise the derivative and literary nature of such works. I do not see as particularly productive either the primitivisation of line which was born in those years – it was clearly deliberately adopted, determined by the need to break the professional mould and not by inner requirements: the painter did not "grammatise" himself (a term invented by Petrov-Vodkin) in order to present himself as a naive painter, a "seventh-day artist".

The most organic – i.e. most in accord with the drawing of the artist's internal development –grotesque base is transformed in works in which the very expressiveness and gesturism dissolve in a meditational quality . This trend gathered strength in the early 1990s. Many works, such as the series Music for All, have a sharp observational quality, a quasi-conventionality, even a ritual reference to the dramatism of the Expressionist tradition, but this is not what the series is about. This is, I would say, "somnambulant grotesque" – the long drawn-out state of self-immersion is undoubtedly more important than any additional outer trappings or fillings-in. This trend could most probably not have come to realisation (not in its professional aspect but rather in the establishment of a perception of the world) without those changes wrought in the middle of the 1980s by a journey to Central Asia. Not only his colour range changed, but also his very way of seeing. We first see an attempt to convey the state of heat haze, the vibration of areas of colour, cut across by light. This is a borderline state, both in the vision of colour and sense of space, and in psychological terms. A trance, a kind of lockjaw, which yet opens new horizons of consciousness!

All this was used later, in fact to this day. But the beginning would seem to have been laid then, as was the move towards abstraction. It would be fitting at this point to move Zagorov to the abstract tradition, as has been done many times by those who write about him, and probably quite justly. In this case I see no sense in a short history of abstract art in Russia, the unavoidable result of any attempt to outline the genealogy of a contemporary-Russian abstractionist, particularly when we speak of a Petersburg abstractionist (Moscow at least had the concrete point of the discovery of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, marking a starting point for artists). In Leningrad we should speak not of concrete direct forerunners, but of some general genetic code taking in Malevich, Matiushin. Only the followers of Sterligov had real "parents", and yet Zagorov, while he obviously looked in that direction, did not leave one school in order to join another. All those who genuinely, from an early stage, dealt in abstraction, have walked alone, whether it be E. Miakhnov-Voytenko or the half-Muscovite, half-Petersburg M. Kulakov.

Zagorov started later. And this is an important point. His arrival at abstraction was deprived of the bombast of politicisation which was so unavoidable for the early underground at the time of Khruschev's "thaw"; and he was not affected by the collective energetic impulse which fed their groups of neophyte-devotees at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s. (This collective impulse quickly flagged – who today in Moscow consistently deals in abstraction? The veteran Yu. Zlotnikov, and maybe the young A. Kirtsova?)

In a word, for Zagorov the transition to abstraction, as always, was a fact in his own creative biography, not propped up by the general situation in the history of art or by group psychology.

Yet the transition was somewhat unstable – the very logic of the artist's self-development guarantees a turn to figurativeness, and a parallel and often concurrent return to the non-objective. And he understands even abstraction in a broad sense (rather, in a somewhat elusive fashion): from strict geometricality to minimalism, from art informel to some version of lettrisme, from that which can by analogy be described as hard-edge painting to the abstract-surrealist hybrids of Miro or Klee. The only things which fall outside Zagorov's sphere are all versions of technologised abstraction: his work has a natural-philosophical character and he realises himself fully in the field of organics.

Organic life in its most varied manifestations, this is the artist's territory. Biomorphous, vegetable, alive, from micro- and macrocosmic angles. And quite amazingly always in proportion to human scale: almost tactile, lived in, homely. In general I should note that it is an abstraction not of metaphysical breakthroughs, without infernal violence of expression. It may be dramatic or comfortable, but it is an abstraction of the fixed here and now, the close consciousness. Meditating, self-immersed, but accessible – hold out your hand, touch it on the shoulder – you have contact.

Zagorov eludes us in his devices and choice of language. He does not hide – to the point of appropriation – analogies with existing experiments in abstraction. But this is not central to his art, for he is consistent in the proportionality of these devices and this language to the inner movements of the soul, in the motivated nature of his search for elusive harmony – artistic, spiritual, homely. A rare, elusive type of organic artist. In subject and device, to repeat Chistyakov's phrase. As a man and in device. Not my device for describing him, of course. Zagorov's device for personalising and autobiographising his abstract method.